Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Three Moments in Time that Could've and Should've Ended my Veterinary Life

Today, is World Mental Health Day2016.  As Prince William said, to paraphrase, "We all have Mental Health, and we need to look after that as well as we  do our Physical Health." 

As a member of an industry where the suicide rate is four times the national average, it is important for each veterinarian (and every person) to look at how they are going to support their own mental health, as well as they do their own physical or family health.

Many many many years ago, when I was a new graduate veterinarian (it was the early 1990's, so yes, last century), there was a day (or three)  when my boss at the time (I shall call him Dr Bob), wasn't in a good mood.

He was known as the charmer, or the happy one of the practice.  He was having a bad day (aka several), and as a result it was equally unpleasant for everyone else.  Many pet owners were extremely unhappy as a result, and they let the rest of us know about it.

As I was the bottom of the pecking order, alot of the angst fell onto me, the one person who had the least experience to deal with it.

That vet had a genuine reason for being in a bad "head space', and he needed people to be compassionate to him about it, not critical or angry that he couldn't be there for them.  He had been there so many times for them and their pets, and just once, he needed some of the compassion and kindness flowing his way.

It was a hard lesson for me, as a young veterinarian, that I  had to learn.  I had to learn it with no support from my colleagues or fellow workers. 

I had to develop a strategy to cope with the lack of kindness or compassion from some pet owners and even fellow colleagues during these moments if I was going to continue to be a veterinarian. I had to get over my own anger towards these same groups for their lack of kindness, and realise that I had to be self reliant, and practice kindness to myself.

One day, I knew that  was going to be facing or dealing with what Dr Bob was dealing with, or if not that specific thing, I knew I was going to be dealing with the emotions he was dealing with.

That was the reality, as I saw it,  as a young veterinarian. I knew my life was not all going to be  puppy licks, happy days and good things happening all of the time.  I was going to have bad bad days.

It was also not going to be filled with people asking "RUOK?"  In fact, it was going to be the opposite.  It had the potential to be filled with people who were willing to kick you in the guts even when you were down.

Being a veterinarian is part of my DNA... it is something that I can't get away from, as it is something that I have breathed and lived since I was in fourth class.  But despite that hard core passion and desire for my life's calling, there have been times where I had to question my life's choice, and perhaps look to another path.

But for those of you who are part of the animalclinic family... please do not worry that I am contemplating quitting any time soon.  There is a reason why I am described as focused and driven. I am stubborn, and have a strong core belief in the care for my animals.

So what are the the three main things that could've (and should've) ended my veterinary life?

1. When the Dog Bites....

Oh, how I cringe when I go to greet a pet with liver treats in my hand, or after I have examined their mouth, eyes and ears, to have the pet owner say with  a wry grin "he/she bit the last vet we saw".

Really?  I just had my hand and/or my face so close to this pet extending my hand of friendship and love. This pet owner knew what their  pet was potentially capable of, if they met someone new.

Yet they thought it funny.

They think its funny that their pet didn't bite me at the initial visit, or they think it hilarious that their pet  goes on to snap or lunge.

Charming... not!

I refuse to believe or accept that bites and scratches are an acceptable "occupational hazard" for the veterinary profession.

Yes,  I know we are dealing with living creatures and as a result we can be bitten or scratched. But, I will not accept it is OK to being bitten, or that it is funny that I could be.  

My first ever memorable dog bite was by my own dog, Burek, when I was trying to separate him from another dog during a dog fight. I was only 8 at the time. That bite was to my right hand.
My dog Burek - in the 1970's.

The second memorable incident was when I was working as a vet nurse:  a German Shepherd thought they wanted a taste of my right cheek. I am forever thankful to the vet at the time who did not tolerate that and took every step to protect me.

The third most memorable incident that almost ended my career was when I was an experienced vet, a practice owner, and a young mother of three children.   A 2 year old Rottie that I had known as a puppy,  turned around and bit me twice on my right arm (to the bone) whilst I was listening to his chest.

I still have the scars and the ongoing pain in my right forearm.

I still remember the fear of entering my consultation room in the months after that.  It took alot to  work through my fear, and to feel safe and happy again with dogs.

What did I find that helped me?

It was, strangely enough, the wonderful pet owners whom, when I explained my situation, allowed me to go slowly, and muzzle their pet if needed.  They allowed me to regain my confidence around the animals that I loved so much. 
Confidence regained! Thanks Lillie

There was some pet owners who were not so gracious - and I have to thank Dr Bob for giving me the gift of dealing with that too. 

2.When I have to do the hardest part of the job

This is a moment that replays itself on multiple occasions, sometimes on the same day.  Each one takes a small part of my soul every single time.

In case you aren't sure what I am talking about, it is about euthenasing a much loved family pet, or dealing with the grief of a pet owner whose pet has suddenly died (such as brought in dead due to some trauma or disease).

Yes, this a moment that replays itself regularly, and as a vet, I will never know which particular patient will be the "one" that may be the one that will end my career. 

As an empath (one who feels the pain of a sick or injured pet or person acutely), I feel physical pain when I see or I am with a pet in pain. Each one causes me physical pain.

Some  pet owners cannot handle that look of my face, misinterpreting it as a judgement on them.  It isn't.

When I hold the paw of a pet about to cross from life to death, I feel their pain slip away from them as they go into peace.

Every single time, a little part of my soul dies with each pet that dies at my hand.

Because this moment is so personal, it is important to me, as a human being and veterinarian that this is as peaceful for the pet as I can possibly make it. 

I have heard from fellow veterinarians of the one euthenasia which broke their soul -  and ended their career.

Will this happen to me?

Who is to say, but it will not stop me from providing this service with as much kindness as I can - after all, it is my last gift to the beautiful animals I feel lucky to serve.

Please be as kind to your vet during this difficult time, as they are to your pet.  We do not intend to make this time any more difficult that it needs to be, but we know that it is a very difficult time for everyone, from making the decision to being there for the last breath. 

The loss of a much loved family member hurts everyone. Please, be kind.

3. When we were broken into so many times it wasn't funny.

It is a sad reality of being in business that we are the easy target of  graffiti, burglary or vandalism.

The graffiti experts call this art - I call it abuse and vandalism. Buy a canvas at Bunnings and put it in a gallery if it is art. 

We have had to change our external garden area 6 times in 15 years, we have had plants ripped up, pots broken, windows smashed, and disgusting graffiti on the front window and side walls.

We have had stupid things stolen like a water tap handle, and a bucket of paint.  We have had valuables stolen, such as my late father's tools during the time we were renovating the vet hospital back in 1997.  Tools that he had spent 50 years collecting were stolen. 

But there was one year that in the space of a few months, were were broken into 5 times (not including graffitti or broken pots).

It even made it into the local newspaper as "news".

It was so intense that I had to consider the possibility that it was personal - that someone or some group of people did not want us to continue to be in business.

That is a horrible thought. 

Fortunately, the Police discounted that theory. It was just a series of being "unlucky".

For the thieves and those who think vandalism is fun - what you do does hurt people and cause pain. If that is your intention, well, it worked. I am sorry that you derive joy from the pain of others.

Insurance doesn't cover most of the damage caused, and what it did cover - well, it just increased my insurance premiums. The only group who won were the thieves and the insurance company.

For me, well, I have zero tolerance for thieves and liars.  

As for the future? 

As I head into the next twenty five years of my veterinary career, I am mindful of the whole set of new challenges that I  (and my colleagues) need to face.  Challenges such as technology, corporatisation, other disruptive process , and increased regulation of the veterinary profession itself but  with deregulation of the animal care industry in general.  

The veterinary profession is going to look very different in the future, and sadly, despite the  innovations that will improve the health of our pets, I am going to be saddened at the way this is going to be delivered to the animals and their families that I love so much. 

I try to live life with understanding, compassion and kindness to myself, my family and to the animals that are part of the animalclinic family.

The lesson I learnt with Dr Bob that it is vital to practice self compassion and kindness to one-self. This is a gift that everyone needs to give themselves. 

It is with compassion and kindness to my animal friends and myself that I approach each day.

I am Dr Liz, mad vet from Bellambi - as I say to family, it is my madness that keeps me sane.

It is with gratitude that protecting and recognising mental health in all people is getting the public understanding and support that it deserves.